Saturday, November 27, 2010

Insert creative title here

It's been a fun week, not much really to write about, but i'll do my best.

We've settled in quite nicely and are starting to figure out where everything is. A benefit of this is that we seem to get lost less and less with each passing day. Though, I still haven't quite figured out the right of way when crossing a street. It seems like the bicycle has it no matter what, which is strange but also somewhat satisfying.

Like most of our adventures so far, all the fun stuff we've found hasn't been planned, we just stumble on it. So far this includes a Fish Market, Flower Market, Book Market and an antiques/clothing market. All very neat, one vendor in particular has caught my eye a few times with his stamps, photographs, and bank notes. Play your cards right and there might be some nazi money in your stocking this christmas.

Speaking of christmas (it apparently happens here on December 5th)on one of our adventures out we wandered into "winter wonderland". The atmosphere and smell, remind me of the Kris Kindle Market in Kitchener, there is a icerink in the centre and is surrounded with vendors selling waffles, olibollens (like an apple fritter), donuts, chocolate, cheese and sausage. The smell is fantastic, it's hard to pass through without loading up on all the sugary sweets. There also seems to be some games to play and a merry-go-round to ride. Sadly it was raining when we discovered it have have yet to be back.

We still seem to spend a bit of our time walking from cafe to cafe here, not in search of wireless, but for warmth. It's gotten a bit cold here faster than I think either of us had anticipated and on occasion we find ourselves underdressed (especially Liz, as her coat is at the cleaners). On one of these adventures to a bike store, we found a long (i mean long, over a km i'd venture to guess) line of candle lit lamps hanging from the street posts. Men with ladders armed with matches were lighting them as the sun started to go down. You seem to find this sort of care everywhere here, the city is kept clean and trim. It's quite a contrast compared to what I'm used to.

Of note also are all the design shops around, they range form bathroom and kitchen specific to really anything you can imagine. I try to take photos of some of the weirder stuff. Take this rag chair we saw for example, 3200€ gets you a chair made of rags that are strapped to a wooden frame. It gets weirder from there. I think the weirdest so far is a lamp that floats in fat. Odd i know, but exploring these places can be fun, and it warms you up.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Lekker Huis

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Finding a room in Amsterdam was remarkably easy. Having settled on a price range and being willing to accept almost anything, we ended up finding a quite nice place in Zeeburg. It's new construction, and previously a family home. That's why the bedroom wall is pink and there are glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling! I'll take you through a quick photo tour, but then I have to go out to de apotheek, de wijnwinkel, en voor een wandeling. 

Entrance door, as seen from first floor landing.
 Huiskamer on the 1st floor. Centre window is actually a door!

Keuken, on the 1st floor also.

Stairs, as seen from the second floor landing.

Hallway to bathroom, laundry and another bedroom.

2nd floor badkamer.


Balcony of our slapkamer!

 Okay, so the view out the bedroom isn't the greatest, and it's in new construction. But frankly, there is no way we were going to get a short term rental on a canal in Amsterdam Centrum for anything less than the payment of several future generations. That is something I'm just going to have to come to terms with. Besides, balcony! room! kitchen! Or as Matt says "Home Toilet Advantage".

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Oompaloompas and the Dutch pottery mines

Hello again faithful viewers,

It's once again time for another instalment of EUROTRIP 2010 (text doesn't convey the big announcer voice I was going for).  Anyway,  a new day,  a new adventure. This time our story comes from the "village" of Delft.

Like all these stories,  looking back after I can see we were in for a wild ride, all the signs were there.  Immediately exiting the train we were greeted by a crowd of short orange-faced people dressed in drab sweatwear.

Failing to do our research before setting off on this journey, we were quite turned around. We decided to follow these strange folk into the town hoping we could get our bearings and find our hotel. The plan worked and soon after we had found our nest.

The hotel,  a rather non-descript building from the outside, had a few surprises of it's own in store.  The room was like non other I have ever laid my eyes on.  The walls, floor and ceiling had been painted in a desert island motif.  Mini spotlamps on dimmer switches dotted the ceiling and once turned low, shone like, well cheesy fake stars in a hotel would (Liz would like to add they were in the constellations of Orion and Ursa Major).  The bathing accommodations were modest,  a small shower with built in tanning booth and a spacious 2 person Jacuzzi. The bed was also modest, consisting of 2 individual Ultramatic adjustable singles pushed together.  A hard sell but we must grin and bear these situations when they arise.

After a quick clean and wash we headed out into the village, a tall spire drawing our eye.  A turn right,  then left , down an alley and out we came in a large square.  On one end a massive tower with church attached; on the other, a smaller tower surrounded by a town hall. In between was noisy and  busy market.  A normal village by any standards,  a few passes up and down the aisles  of vendors led us out and around the outside.

Face to store....upon store of white and blue pottery. We had arrived in the capital of Dutch Pottery. Delft pottery was introduced a long time ago, by the Chinese, or the Spice Trade, or the Dutch East India Company. These could possibly be all the same thing. Dated to the 1500s, Delft decided to dedicate dozens of declining or derelict breweries to the manufacture of pottery wares. These were homegrown knockoffs of Chinese porcelain, made from ingredients imported from England, France, Hungary and eventually Canada. Artfulness  came form scenes of classic Dutch landscpaes, windmills and nature. Now, China manufactures cheap knockoff Delftware and sells it to Europe.  The cycle is complete.

Thinking quickly we turned and ran for the first available church, the only safe place from the hairy potters. We tossed 6€ at the counter and began the ascent of the tower.  Around and around...and around we went and then we stopped.  Then around and around....and around again until we reached the top, a staggering 109m above the ground in a brick building built in 1496. An amazing sight:  the surrounding areas, the churches, the canals, the houses (some with years painted on their roofs) and a McDonald's sign.

Sights seen, we descended the tower and entered the church. The Nieuwe Kerk - the home the Dutch Royal crypt (including both William of Oranges) -  is made of brick and wood, and was partially destroyed after a lightning strike in 1654 that exploded about 30 000 tonnes of gunpowder. It has since been restored to its current condition and the 36 or so bells can be heard clear across the town.

After we made a dash through the market to a far off structure, it's leaning tower guiding our way. The 13th century Oude Kerk houses the burials of both Vermeer (arty fellow who was born, lived and died there) and Leeuwenhouk (sciencey fellow who was born, lived and died there) along with some other Nederlandsers of historical importance. Churched out, we headed out and about. Picked up a single Delft plate that wasn't decorated in windmills or clogs, or milk maids!

Delft, day two, was a tour of the last remaining Delft Pottery factory from the 17th centtury. Royal Delft, to be pompously correct. The tour was led by the esteemed audio recording, and passed by the artists painting the pottery (in black, it then turns blue during the firing process) and the potters themselves. Having seen enough plates and vases to last a significant lifetime, it was time for a damp skulk through a botanical garden and the private dwelling of the 14th century Oostport.

The next day saw us heading off the Leiden, away from the theme room and into a generic hotel room. Leiden is the city with the oldest Dutch University, founded by an Oranje-Nassau in 1575. Since, we had to leave early the next morning, we headed out to explore as soon as we could. We climbed an old Dutch Windmill, De Valk; saw a Sinterklass canal parade; went past dwellings of Rembrandt and Descartes; walked along the "prettiest scene in the world" circa 1700; ate a greek lunch; went to a museum of science and medicine (complete with steampunk and formaldehyde babies). And then everything closed. Dashed off to the local supermarket, got our eats, and headed back to the hotel. 

Not enough time was spent in Leiden - there is a density of museums and "attractions" far beyond one day's effort. It is only a 30 minute journey from Amsterdam, and so an easy day trip to return.

Now, we're in Amsterdam. Sitting pretty (or nearly so) in our new digs.


Friday, November 19, 2010

New City: Rotterdam

We arrived in Rotterdam Centraal, after taking a 30 minute train from Den Haag Centraal. The former is under massive reconstruction; the latter was dull and so, uninteresting. 

Rotterdam is very new - and unlike the other places we have been in the Netherlands. Exiting Centraal's tarp and scaffolding, a set of sleek towers rear up. We'd seen them at Madurodam but only with a 1:25 scale. In Rotterdam, they're just a part of the modern skyline.a During the 1940 Nazi bombing(which forced the Dutch to surrender) the centre of the city was demolished. Aerial photographs show how few buildings remained inside the fire boundary. Astute civil planning afterwards has grown into a spacious, navigable, aesthetic, busy place. Especially after coming from Den Haag.  

The Grand Central Hotel, our base of operations, is haggard though. It was built in 1917, furnished in 1950s future modern, and cleaned last when Hendrix stayed. It would have been gorgeous in its prime. But not now. The bathroom tile is painted seafoam green; the shelf toilet is hand primed flush; and the sink was both cracked and clogged - allowing it to overflow until it leaked out the sides. The bedroom has three built in    closets, two stylin' red chairs (in vinyl!), and a floating writing desk. The supplied fridge is neither plugged in, nor openable. The carpet is blue, and has some stuck on feathers and white paint decorating it. Outside, the elevator is non-functional, and doesn't have a door. The stairs sport a melted iron mark, and go at up at least 5 floors - 'cause that's where our room was.

The hotel sits within the fire boundary, and is surrounded by newly constructed pedestrian retail (yes, again!), clubs and cafes. Unlike the other areas, a block away are also large office complexes, casinos and parkland. The first day, we wandered around the area closet to the hotel, as usual. We found an excellent cafe off one of the main shopping routes. The amazing thing about all the places we've been is the lack of cars. Every city has had a pedestrianized area of town - generally dedicated to the art of retail therapy. These areas aren't the size of the Eaton Centre - but several times larger. Because it's outside, the atmosphere is more enjoyable, regardless of weather.  

Day two, we walked around the northern and eastern sections of the fire boundary. It was interesting to see roads on which one side were "typical Dutch" row houses and the other side modern architecture and buildings. We made it down to the waterfront, and sat near the Marine Corps memorial. Past the Admiralty, a few giant clubs, the Willemsbrug, and to a small port that had sailing boats being refitted in dry dock. We then headed back up towards the hotel, and ran straight into the cube houses and a street market. We tried getting a room in the cube houses, but the hostel was fully booked. After going through the cheese, sweatpants and fries of the market, we saw the Laurenskerk. It's under restoration again, as it was heavily damaged during the Rotterdam bombing and probably needs some more TLC. Much of Rotterdam is under construction. The city plans set out during WW2 allowed for both immediate building, as well as future expansion. Intelligent, considering that Rotterdam is one of the largest ports in the world, second only to Shanghai - and that only recently.    

In respect to Rotterdam's position, day three saw us walking towards the main port of Rotterdam. Our route took us across the Erasamusbrug, and along the length of the Wilhelminapier. At the end of the pier was the original Holland America Line building, an art installation and a kids park. Walking back, we encountered the Niewe Luxor Theater - entertaining as the hotel is next to the Oude Luxor Theater. We also walked along part of the 2010 Tour de France opening route. Then past the defunct De Hefbrug, and over the Willemsbrug. Heading back to the train station to look into some financial options, we stumbled across the mini-world Railz. That was about two horus of out life wandering through an underground basement of miles of model trains. Superman, Batman, Robin and some naked people were hanging about too. There was also a man carrying a cow. Someone had a great sense of humour. 

Rotterdam was not a favourite. That may have been travel weariness, or due to familiarity of the modern skyline. Things were left unseen - such as the National Architecture Institute, and several museums and art galleries. Gives a reason to come back though, doesn't it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Life on the road

I'm finding it more difficult everyday to find time/space to write these little summaries. Our past few places to stay haven't been entirely friendly for this sort of thing. Hostels are great for cheap rooms, but lousy for keeping up on your blog. We spend a lot of time daily looking for cafe's with wifi access...and frankly coffee in general (our mobile espresso machine has not come in handy yet).

Since last time we met, we've entered the Netherlands. Wow, what a place, immediately upon entering from Germany your are struck with the difference in the way the country is developed. Man made canals and windmills spot the countryside. It continues to amaze me how the transportation services here are developed and how well they work together be it intercity or intercontinental. Dad would be very happy to see all the wind turbines and solar panels spotting the country side.

We started our trip in the Netherlands with the obligatory stay in Amsterdam. I'll gloss over it a bit because we plan on spending more time there. We stayed in an interesting hostel very close to the central station, the many canals and the tourist area. A busy place, a lot of people and noise. For those reading this familiar with Matt's adolescent summers, the hostel was very similar to the staff house at Arundel, just 90% more extreme. 3 nights there was enough, too busy, too noisy, too much booze (someone had a hangover!) Unfortunately, as we would find out, Amsterdam is extremely expensive Friday-Sunday and were "forced" out of town for the weekend. The price of rooms triples, almost to the point where it's the same price for 2 people in a hostel as renting a room in one of the stately old hotels. So we moved on to the city of Den Haag, which is located just to the southwest.

After getting on the wrong train, and worrying about our tickets being valid, we settled in for the 1hr train ride. Passing by canals, many modern wind turbines, a handful of real "Dutch Windmills", and a giant Ikea we arrived in Den Haag. We quickly found our bearings (thanks to Liz's map reading skills and iPhone) and hiked to our hotel. An interesting city, many buildings here can date back to the 13th century. There are royal palaces and buildings everywhere, museums and historical spots of interest spot the city almost block by block. It may also be the most "modern city" so far in our travels; there are actually skyscrapers here. From our hotel window we have a view of the skyline that reminds me of many North American cities.

Den Haag is the home of the Dutch Parliament and the Royal Family. It is also the home of the UN's international Court of Justice and a variety of other international organizations. While we've been here we have seen quite a bit. Our fist day we explored the giant outdoor pedestrian only mall (again) and sat in a nice cafe and had lunch. During the next day we visited the Binnenhof, - the parliamentary buildings; the Ridderzaal - the Knight's Hall that dates to the 13th century; and the Mauritshuis - an art museum containing Rembrandt and Verrmeer, among others.

The Mauritshuis is the home of the Royal Colelction. The building itself is nearly a perfect cube, with dimension of 25m, dating from the 17th century. We got told off for being too close to the paintings, apparently our noses are threats to glass covered oils. We saw The Girl with the Pearl Earring (Vermeer), The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicholaes Tulp (Rembrandt), which are the two "must sees". There were also beautiful Dutch landscapes of vast clouded skies, wild seas with ships (described as "breezes" on the sea), still life's of elaborate flowers and portraits. Almost all artists were Dutch - and there was a temporary exhibit of Old Dutch Masters from the 1600s from some American's collection. The museum/gallery was small, only two floors, but dense. The art was arty.

After having lunch near an outdoor open urinal, we walked up to the Netherlands Miniature Village. It was created in memory of George Maduro, a Dutch Jewish student and Resistance Fighter from WW2. The Madurodam had 1:25 scale models of actual Dutch buildings and structures, along with moving trains, cars, people and planes. It was a great place to go to get a full sense of the architecture of some buildings - as some of the real life counterparts are covered in scaffolding and tarps. It was awesome and totally dorky. We walked back to the hotel foot sore, and had ham-n-cheese for dinner.

Today, we went to the Escher in Het Paleis Museum, housed in a converted palace of the Dutch Royal Family (occupied until 1991). It was also totally great and awesomesauce. I (Liz) have been exposed to and influenced by the work of M.C. Escher my entire life. Being in a place where so much of his art was available to scrutinize was fulfilling. Along with the tesserations Escher is known for, it showed his early work of wood block printings of nature.

Stuff didn't open until about noon, so there wasn't much else to do afterwards. Lunch was appelbeignets and fries-in-a-paper-cup. Them fries is good and super popular.

Tomorrow we hope to go to the Galerij Prins Willem V, and the neighbouring Gevangenpoort. The former showcases art in a cluttered manner, not like today's stark walls. The latter is the location of a prison and torture chamber. It also has a museum. I plan on picking up some heavy metal spikes to insert into Matt's backpack, so he can complain about it some more. We may try to get into the Ridderzaal, but it gets fully booked quickly.

Rotterdam tomorrow, then who knows.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Scamble

So Matt and I figured we'd find accommodations in Europe after we got here. Of course we hadn't thought too far ahead of ourselves. That would be prudent. Instead we over packed, and are now desperate to find somewhere to live - mainly to drop off a bunch of our crap.

We started in the expat community websites and estate agent websites looking for a flat to rent in the Amsterdam area for around 1000€ per month. Since we only want to stay 3 to 6 months, it narrows our qualifying pool. We then moved onto and trolled around there. We made the decision to also start looking for flatshares - which is actually a better idea for us. It's cheaper, and we aren't leaving an empty home when we go for trips around Europe. I formulated a response for the majority of flats and shares, and started firing off dozens of emails to people the first night in Copenhagen. I think we're pretty sellable, but the craigslist community isn't so lax. We

We only got one response, and we received it fairly quickly, while we were still in Copenhagen. The guy described himself and the place he had for rent. Stated as ~30 years old, Masters student, in England for 6 to 18 months for studying. The location seemed entertaining - it was addressed at 12 Damrak, Amsterdam 1012. That's basically right outside Centraal, in the heart of the tourist and "destination" neighbourhood. The cost was crazy good, and it came furnished. Thinking that we had found something to good to be true, we flirted with the idea of it being a scam. We searched the guy out on google, found nothing much. Noting found, nothing feared.

We stayed in contact with this guy, and altered our travel plans accordingly. We chose to come to A'dam quickly (Hence only 2 nights in Hamburg). Partly to feel more secure about the deal, and partly to continue looking for a place. Neither of us are optimists by nature, so the possibility of this not working for unknown reasons was still foremost in our minds.

We got to the stage of tenancy contract and money arrangements the first night in Hamburg. The guy wanted a form of I.D. to confirm our interest and legitimacy in the contract. We sent off the front copy of my Ontario Driver's Licence. We then received a soft copy of the tenancy agreement, and the method of money delivery, as well as a passport image. Matt and I re-read everything, checked the legitimacy of the passport, and slept a night before delivering our response. I kept wondering about the extraordinarily odd phrasing of his sentences - especially after discovering that me was American.

We weren't comfortable sending the guy 1100€ without a set of keys, or seeing the place. We negotiated either a split payment, with the remainder due on getting the keys; or a wire transfer to a bank account. We then got an email that settled the nagging suspicion. He would gladly accept a split payment, or even a wire transfer. But he would have to ask a friend/coworker for a bank account, as he only had an online e-cash account. That is shady. Moneygram is shady. Craigslist is shady. Further research showed the Cost:Locale was shady. Matt then told me we could image search and compare.

We used Lo and Behold! Our furnished apartment did exist. In Rome. As a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom; patio laden beauty. It weren't in A'dam. It wasn't real. I emailed the guy with a link and a request for explanation. I didn't need one. We already knew.

Sometimes, being an overly cynical, untrusting bastard is worth it. Hopes were dashed - but only mildly. Now, are we concerned enough to contact Interpol?

We're now searching Dutch websites and looking around the area for flatshares. Something will turn up. It's easier being here and looking.

Meat Hamburg

Hamburg was quick. We were only there for two nights, which really translates into one full day. And that full day happened to be a Sunday - not the most notorious of days for travel/sightseeing. However, we tried to use the best of our day, and started out from the hotel at around 0930h. Thehotel was situated in a more residential area, but right near a LIDL food shop and a 15 seat bakery and cafe. That morning, we opted for the 4€ hotel breakfast - bad call in retrospect. Anyway, after eating and organizing ourself, off we trotted.

We decided to walk into the main centre of town from the Hotel, without really knowing where we were going. We followed a road in the westerly direction, and walked through a series of residential, commercial, construction, and industrial sections. Went by a skate park and saw a "cool" dad go in with two boy-children (his sons probably). Passed by an office building that was somehow associated with Hamburg Water Power - it had 3 large water mains under a glass walkway. We kept on, still not knowing where we really were, and ended up arriving right at a hot air balloon ride. It wasn't really a hot air balloon, and it wasn't really a ride. It was more rigid than a helium balloon, and was connected to the ground by a giant hydraulic winch. It *could* carry 30 people, but we got lucky with only 2 others and a conductor. We got to see an air view of Hamburg, and it's quite neat from above. There are older church's and public building's roofs of copper; interestingly shaped buildings that conform to preexisting structures, canals and street curves; the harbour area and the lake that Hamburg conforms around. The we came down.

We left the suspended stage, and wandered through the surrounds streets, looking for coffee. We spend a lot of out time looking for coffee. For some reason, I'm compelled to walk past the first 7 places we see. Anyway, we discovered the main shopping strip and wandered up an down that for a bit. We finally translated a sign that was in every window to mean the street would Open on this Very Special Sunday for a Variety of Tax Free Shopping from 1300h to 1600h. But at the moment it was deserted. Before the mania started, we headed towards the lake. Itwas quite nice. It's a small lake (larger than Central Park Reservoir (Onassis?), with sailing, rowing a fountain and at least 4 kinds of aquatic bird (duck, goose, swan, and some little sharp beaked black diving guy) and a fountain. There are canal boats that are moored where one can get a cup of tea for 4.50€ (Ha! no!). The view of Hamburg is quite nice from the lakeside. One sees the old 5 storey residential buildings, with a mix of new glass and steel and construction cranes. We passed by one business, advertised as a "Maitre Chauffeurier". There was a SMART car parked outside.

At the end of the lake was another shopping strip - this time boutique - that followed a canal. It intersected the Rathaus square - the Town Hall of Hamburg. Hamburg's seemingly official name sounds like a duke's title. We went into the Rathaus, and saw an editorial exhibition of "offensive" cartoons (most pertained to the peeve talks between Israel and Palestine). The building's architecture is quite ornate. There are gilded doors, wrought iron decorative doors, lions (always need a good lion and a fountain in the Rathaus courtyard of some lady with a bunch of anthropomorphized ideas. My favourite decorative touch was a fearsome foursome of fantastic beasts - unicorn, sphinx, capricorn and griffon.

After the Rathaus, we wandered some more and ended back up on the shopping strip. Instead of being two of ten, we were in a herd. Basically, it was a regional tourism free-for-all. The LEGO store was open, and had to be visited. I saw the Architecture series, completed and in person, for the first time. Disappointed. We sussed out snowboard packages for Matt (reasonable cost), looked at some electronics (image the biggest Future Shop, and then multiply it by five) and sat in front of the Steiff Teddybär gallery (whoah). We left the crazy shopping area, and decided we would start walking home. There was this small area of the city that was on 5 canal islands. Walking through, we saw a pre-production Mercedes station wagon, and commercial complexes that had canal access and in beautiful restored buildings. Matt compared it to Gotham City. I say it probably has less crime and less Batman. Out of the islands, we headed closer to the river side to walk along the industrial harbour. Then Matt saw the Prototyp Museum. Of Cars. Of German Racing History and Cars. Not one to pass up an opportunity of education, I allowed him to run gleefully in. We even paid to take pictures! It actually was very interesting. Matt was taking a bunch of pictures of the cars, so I took pictures of him.

It was three floors of F1, production cars, art and history. Dorked out, we then grabbed a late lunch/early dinner of unmemorable panini and headed home on the underground.

Then we did the usual. Paid for wifi, checked our email. And then we figured out the scam.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Trains, Boats and Wine Gums...Hamburg Bound

No, I'm not dead,

It's been a hectic few days, our time in Copenhagen was really too short, it's definitely on our short list of places to return. The bicycles, buildings, people, food, shopping and the museums, need much more time than 4 days to really appreciate.

Upon arrival in Copenhagen I did some quick research (i.e. typed, "what to do when bored in Copenhagen" in google) and the result of that research was a short list of 3 must experience things while here. #1 was The Little Mermaid statue that resides in the harbour by the citadel to the north of downtown. #2 was a hippy commune called Freetown and #3 was visit the Carlsberg brewery. Fearing that I'd be branded even more of a drunk by my family members (thanks Haiden) I decided to skip the brewery and opted to wander aimlessly.

On our second day (first morning) we were out for a walk looking for coffee and some baked goods when we stumbled upon a very interesting church with a spiralled steeple. You can go inside and tour and climb the steeple, but it's expensive, so we opted to take a few pictures and move on. Turning the corner from here we passed a highschool when some graffiti caught my eye. We turned down to take a look and found ourself staring at no camera signs and some very bohemian looking types. Not wanting to cause any fuss, we stuffed the cameras in our sacks and wondered through there midst. Now from what my research taught me, was that Freetown is essentially a hippie commune, it's run by a committee, has it's own economy of trade and goods (some of this includes the sale of soft narcotics) and is a squatter's paradise. The land occupied was once an abandoned military base that has since been "renovated": old buildings have been modernized, new buildings have been built. Some are lovingly built and maintained and others resemble the Weasley's home in Harry Potter (Liz: There is NOTHING wrong with the Weasley homestead!) To get your mind in the right area, think of Kensington market in Toronto; now take that atmosphere of the colour and people and the madness of it all and move it out to Toronto Island to all those small funky homes. That sort of is what Freetown was like.

After Freetown, we walked down past the harbour and back into the core of downtown. There is a shopping mall like the Eaton Centre, but outdoors. We wondered for a while and stumbled on the Round Tower. I'm not sure of the exact date it was built, but I recall the 17th century. The building is composed of a church and a hollow tower. You are able to climb the tower, but there are no stairs, just a ramp that spirals up and up and up. We had the pleasure of sitting and listing to what sounded like an avalanche falling, but turned out to be a gaggle of young school children having a great time running in circles...Liz and I tried that too. Once at the top of the tower you can climb out onto a platform and gaze at the city around you. Beautiful, the first thing that strikes you from up in the air is that the city doesn't have many high rises, nothing is much taller than 5 stories, so you can see all the way to the horizon on all sides. The only thing that interrupts the view is the occasional church steeple. The building also contains an observatory that is open to the public every night at this time of year, and a library that is now a gallery.

We finished off the day with a sit in a cafe and some people watching in the square by the amusement park that sits dead centre of the city. Tivoli Gardens it's called, and unfortunately it is closed until mid November as they are preparing for the Christmas season.

Day 3 brought a another lovely walk, we ended up at the citadel with plans to see the Little Mermaid statue. upon arrival we found a note stating that the statue had been loaned to the worlds fair in Shanghai and wouldn't be back until month's end. We did see the rock it sits on and took pictures of that.

After the statue we wandered around a bit more, and came upon the King's Palace where the crown jewels are kept. It was under construction so we walked on past and walked through the gardens for a bit. Even in fall (autumn) you can tell the care that goes into the garden, everything is cropped and trimmed perfectly square, even the tops of the trees. Definitely a place to see in late spring or early summer.

We finished of the day with a stop in one of the local museums, and we were given quite the treat, I have never seen so many statues, art, and historical artifacts in my life, the building was immense, after 3 hours we gave up. Too much to see, it was already close to 6 and my head hurt from trying to take it all in.

Needlessly to say, this was just one of the many museums in Copenhagen and another one of the reasons why we will definitely have to come back.

I suppose that brings us to today, we packed up, grabbed coffee and baked goods at the bakery next door to the hostel and headed for the train station, another amazing building, apparently the 3rd one that was built. It was built from what I recall in the early 1900's and upon entering it you are struck with the open airiness of a steel beam'd be wrong, it's all wood, every last bit of it, wood. Amazing, it deserves a post of its own.

We boarded a train headed for Hamburg at 11 am and the journey began. This is how traveling should be. 2 hours into the trip and we arrived at the edge of the land, the train slowed, and boarded a ferry for Germany. Onboard the ferry was a bar, laundromat, cafe as well as a dutyfree shop. We took a quick look through and Liz had to shoo me out of the candy section. 3kg box of Quality St candy for $15 CAD. I had to settle with a 1/2kg box of stomach hurts now.

That brings us to know, we found our hotel, settled in and are just turning in for the night. Off to see the sights of Hamburg tomorrow.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Getting Over Iceland

The People

The first Icelander, Ingolfur Arnarson settled in the Reykjavik area in 874 CE. Interestingly, the male settlers were Nordic, and the females were Celtic. Or rather the heritage of the majority of Icelanders is shown to be as such. The culture of the people of Iceland have been surviving on the island for over 1100 years - enough time to make a distinctive language, culture and identity. One of the places we visited on the Golden Circle tour was þingvellir, the site of Iceland's, and the world's, first democratic parliament: the Alþingi (Althingi). This plain is next to the largest natural lake in Iceland (þingvallavatn), on top of the rift between the Eurasian and North American plates, surrounded by glacial mountains, hot springs and is bloody breathtaking. þingvellir was chosen, according to historical Icelandic Sagas as the owner of the land was found guilty of murdering a celtic slave. As punishment - to him and his family - the lands were taken away, and used as a public meeting plain.

Icelandic is derived from Old Norse, and has remained a stable language since the time that the Sagas were written. It is the only modern language to retain the symbols þ (thorn) and ð (eth). One is basically a hard TH sound, and the other is soft. Or at least, thats how I've been reading it. It creates a tongue twister to try and 1) wrap the head around reading a new symbol and 2) say things like Viðskiptablaðið (Vithskiptathith?). The idea of "þing" has been passed down through the generations to mean assembly, entity and now: thing.

The Icelanders I met (which were few, I admit) have been polite, if brusk. They are astoundingly fluent in English, and yet appreciate the effort made to say "takk fyrir". Self described "car loving and lazy" , backed by the evidence of pedestrians. The first night we were in Reykjavik, Matt and I went for a walk to hunt for dinner. The only people we encountered walking around were going from a vehicle to the supermarket. And we took a long walk that night, mainly because we got lost. On the other hand, the adventurous ones hike for miles and miles through terrain I'd be afraid to get lost on. Hiking trails are everywhere, especially in uninhabited regions; such as the central highlands and glacial caps. Something like 75% of the population live in or near Rekjavik, 2% live in rural communities and the rest in various towns along the coast lines. This a recent phenomenon, as up until the 20th century, everyone lived on subsistence farming. There are only 330,000 peeps!

The Infrastructure.

The roads in Iceland are separated into two categories, regular and F roads. Regular roads are smooth, and seem to be made of black tar and chip. But at the side of Hringvegur, we saw a construction zone. Trucks came barrelling through the lava plains, carrying freshly quarried rock, and dumping at the road construction zone. The material was black, same as the lava rocks and sand in the area. The roads are made of the available material - lava rocks! Roads are smooth, and intersections are almost always roundabouts - and the roundabouts vary in size from medium, where one has to shift into 2nd gear to get around, and huge , where one can drive at full tilt. There are passes over the mountains, and near glaciers. Inclines we went over were at 12%.

Marked F roads are prohibited to 2wd vehicles. The roads are not hard tarmac, but soft gravel roads with steep inclines and river fords. We eyed up a couple roads that weren't specifically prohibited, but decided against because of the uphill hairpins with off cambre dirtiness. Hell, there is a reason that so many 4x4, raised, studded tire monstrosities are driving around. Some even have snorkels, for those many occasions when one's engine is underwater.

Water here is amazing. The tap water is from untouched natural sources. Hot water comes directly from underground geothermal sources, smells like sulphur and is really, really, really hot. At the Geysir site, I touched (shh, don't tell) a non-steaming, non-bubbling pool. It was pleasant to the touch on the surface, but obviously much hotter deeper. And the smell is the smell of the Earth under pressure. Definitely like Matt's bum after some rotten eggs. The hot water smells like sulphur in the taps, the showers, and the hot pool. To mediate hot water for general use, it is combined with cold water. Cold water is also directly pumped in from the Earth, unfiltered. It is not smelly, and is the greatest water I have ever drank. Ever. I would import that stuff.

The environment.

It is cold. Okay, thats a mite unfair. The temperature was quite reasonable for 65 degrees North latitude. Hovering around 0. But then there was the wind. Wind strong enough to blow open car doors and move people. On one walk, I wanted to make a sail and use it for transportation. The car was severely affected by the wind, and would blow around the road. Going through one steep and winding pass, on the second night, it was dark, starting to snow, very windy and definitely scary. Transport trucks would barrel past in the opposite direction, and the blowback made the journey more exciting. Wind blew water droplets from waterfalls onto my face, and the drops would freeze on my glasses and face. October is the start of the winter season, and the winds become furious then. I'm sure that they settle down more in the winter, as the weather stabilizes. But man, it was some crazy days there. I would definitely go back, either further into the winter season, or high summer. Only because of the wind.

Ísland (Iceland) is a gorgeous island. The vistas of truncated glacial mountains, conical volcanoes, ice capped glaciers, separating tectonic plates, lava rubble fields, flat grassland and the ocean are like nothing else on Earth. The first morning, my exhausted brain compared it to some as-yet-unknown alien landscape. And it is. I wish I could have photographed it perfectly for you to see. I spent most of my time staring at, and then taking pictures of, everything I could see. That's why there aren't that many of our ugly mugs.


We arrived safe yesterday at noon, picked up a 3 day metro pass, hopped onto the train, then metro and made our way to the hotel.

I'm quite thankful to be done flying for the time being.

Anyway Copenhagen, what an amazing place at first glance it hits you how different your surroundings are, most the buildings you see are either brand-new and ultra modern or can date back to the 1600s. It's amazingly busy people, bikes, mopeds and cars move around each other in an incredible fluid way. Hardly a horn honked, everything just works.

Bikes everywhere, Dr Seuss could have written a book on this place and bikes. They're colourful, varied and ubiquitous.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Graffiti and a broken door

As planned we headed out this morning back towards Hveragerdisbar for a hike up into the hills where there is a hot spring you can take a swim in. Along the way we decided to stop at a sight seeing spot just at the crest of the hill overlooking Hveragerdisbar. It's a fantastic spot, the sun was rising, snow covered mountains in the distance, the winding road down and the village below with steam puffing from the thermal pools in the countryside

We stopped the car, pointing towards the ocean, Liz popped out and the door flew forward (looking back I should have seen this as a sign), the wind was staggering. Thinking nothing of it, I opened the door to get out and immediately it was ripped from my grasp, the door was caught by the stop, not a big deal I thought and then I tried to close the door....what followed was that distinctive metal on metal binding sound (that i'm all too familiar with). The door had shifted a good cm forward and was pressing on the front fender. Liz took her photos and we headed down the road to the rest stop at the bottom to inspect the damage.

Fearing the worst we pulled into the car park and upon trying to exit i find the door won't open, I hop out the passenger side and see the full extent. Nothing we can do, the wind is still blowing harder than I've ever felt, we decide to skip the hike, return to the hotel, empty the car and return it early so we can deal with the rental insurance.

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Done returning the car we ventured back into Reykjavik's core again, Liz armed with the camera and dressed for anything the weather can muster we began to wonder. A coffee here, browse a shop there, we stumbled on a courtyard covered in graffiti and art. The photo above is actually one of 2 canvas's hanging overtop a tagged wall, quite the statement considering all the signs we've seen for cctv cameras around. We ended our day out with a lunch at what we thought was a hotdog stand (these people LOVE hotdogs) but turned out to be a hoagie place. Aaamazing, 20 or so different types, I had some sort of minced beef in spicy paprika sauce and cheese, Liz tried one with lamb and cabbage.

With lunch done, we wondered back to the hotel through the surrounding suburbs, the wind still blowing as strong as it did on the top of the mountain pass. Rosy cheeked and wind blown we arrived back and are just now getting all packed back up, ready for our shuttle to the airport at 5am. Tomorrow Copenhagen and mainland Europe.

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Some last thoughts on Iceland; come when it's either colder or warmer, beer is cheap in cans but expensive in pints, country hotels are expensive, rent a proper 4x4 or befriend somebody that has one of the jacked up Toyota's running around, oh and always get the optional insurance.

Monday, November 1, 2010

We woke up this morning to extreme winds and rain,  with the forecast calling for more snow, we decided against travelling the 200km further to the Vatnajökull glacier.  Sad,  but we need to return the car on the 2nd and didn't want to end up stranded or worse. Visibility gets quite bad with the blowing wind and rain, and the mountain passes are crazy!  With that in mind we headed back on our way to Reykjavik.

Along the way we stopped off at a roadside cave we passed yesterday in the snow,  it's incredible that places like this just pop up everywhere.  We even saw a few barns built into some of these.  (I scooped up my requisite bag of dirt to add to my collection of places i've been.) 

We took a different route back that we came on,  just on the other side of Hveragerdi is this amazing mountain pass that the ring-road runs on. The pictures we took don't do it justice,  so we'll grab some more tomorrow while we're out that way.  For now here's one of a geothermal plant in the distance.

Once back in  Reykjavik, we rented the same hotel again.  It's cheap as chips compared to most other places around here. 2 nights costing about 2/3 of a country hotel does for one night.  We settled back in then drove downtown to the wharf, had lunch on the seaside (fish stew, very filling) and then walked about town.

Thats it,  back in for the evening.  It's dark already and the rain is falling again.